15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Chicago
Chicago, the "Windy City" as it is often called, lies along the shores of Lake Michigan. It is known for its vibrant arts scene, numerous cultural attractions, excellent shopping, and interesting architecture. The city enjoys a worldwide reputation as a focal point of 20th century architecture and art, with architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and artists like Picasso, Mirõ, Dubuffet, and Chagall having left their mark. The city also has much to offer in the sporting sphere, too, with the Chicago Bears in American football, the Chicago White Sox and Cubs in baseball and the Chicago Bulls in basketball. Last, but not least, are the beautiful beaches.
See also: Where to Stay in Chicago
1 Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago is a world class museum with hundreds of thousands of artworks. The diverse collection spans thousands of years and includes pieces from a variety of media including painting, prints, photography, sculpture, decorative arts, textiles, architectural drawings and more. The Institute is known for its collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings including Georges Seurat's 1884 "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte," Renoir's 1879 "Acrobats at the Circque Fernando" and numerous paintings by Claude Monet.
The main building, designed by Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge in beaux-arts style, was built for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Several other buildings have been added on over the years and today the complex measures 400,000 square feet.
Address: 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago
2 Millennium Park
Millennium Park is located in downtown Chicago bordered by Michigan Avenue to the west, Columbus Drive to the east, Randolph Street to the North and Monroe Street to the South. The main features of Millennium Park include the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue; the interactive Crown Fountain; Lurie Garden; and the Cloud Gate sculpture on the AT&T Plaza.
Address: 201 East Randolph Street, Chicago
3 Michigan Avenue and the Magnificent Mile
Michigan Avenue is probably one of the most attractive boulevards in America. The city's famous Magnificent Mile is a section of Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River, with numerous galleries, boutiques and luxury shops. Some of the attractions along here include the John Hancock Center, the Wrigley Building, and the Tribune Tower. Michigan Avenue splits between North and South designations at Madison Street.
4 Navy Pier
The Navy Pier originally opened in 1916 as an amusement area and shipping facility but is now one of Chicago's most popular tourist attractions. Today, the Navy Pier is made up of 50 acres of gardens, attractions, shops, restaurants, concert venues, and parks. There is a 150 ft Ferris wheel and an historic carousel in Navy Pier Park. Visitors can also watch a film at the 3D Imax Theater, watch actors perform the classics at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, or visit Crystal Gardens, a one-acre, six-story, indoor botanical garden. Also located here is the Chicago Children's Museum. The Pier hosts year-round festivities, including the Chicago Festival in August. Cruise ships leave from here on various sightseeing excursions.
Address: 600 East Grand Avenue, Chicago
5 Wrigley Field
Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, was built in 1914. The stadium seats 39,000 people and is the second-oldest ballpark in the majors.
6 Shakespeare Theater
The Shakespeare Theater in Chicago has a permanent facility at the Navy Pier. The seven-story, glass curtain-walled theater houses a 500 seat courtyard theater and a 200 seat flexible black box theater.
Address: 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago
7 Museum of Science and Industry
At the north end of Jackson Park is the Museum of Science and Industry, founded in 1933, and arguably the most impressive museum in Chicago. It is devoted to the application of natural laws in technological and industrial development. The museum is thought to be the first in the U.S. to incorporate the idea of "hands-on" exhibits. Visitors are encouraged to interact with hundreds of exhibits. The MSI features permanent and changing exhibits, as well as an OMNIMAX theater.
Address: 5700 South Lakeshore Drive, Chicago
8 Field Museum of Natural History
Originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History was founded in 1893 to showcase the biological and anthropological collections gathered for the World Columbian Exposition. The name changed in 1905 to honor Marshall Field, the department store owner, art patron, and major benefactor of the museum. The permanent collection features approximately 20 million artifacts and specimens covering a variety of disciplines including geology, botany, zoology and anthropology. Of special note are the permanent displays on Ancient Egypt and the cultures of North, Central and South America and "Sue," the world's largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Special rotating exhibits take place on a regular basis throughout the year.
Address: 1400 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
9 Lyric Opera of Chicago
The Lyric Opera of Chicago offers a full opera season, from October to March, with well known classics. It began in 1954 and is today world-renowned.
Address: 20 North Wacker Drive, Chicago
10 Oriental Institute Museum
The Oriental Institute Museum, located on the University of Chicago campus, is dedicated to the archeology and art of the Near East. Some of the antiquities on display include finds from excavations in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Turkey, and Israel.
Address: 1155 East 58th Street, Chicago
11 Willis Tower SkyDeck
Until 1996, when the Petronas Towers were built in Kuala Lumpur, the 110 story Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, was the world's tallest office block. While there are now several taller buildings, the view from here is incredible. On a clear day you can see 40 to 50 miles over four states, and gain a bird's eye view of Chicago's impressive architecture.
The Willis Tower took three years to build and was opened to the public in 1974. The building is 1,453 feet tall with an observation area, called the SkyDeck, on the 103rd floor, 1,353 feet above the ground. A glass box with a glass floor, known as the Ledge, juts out from the SkyDeck, where visitors can stand and look directly down at the city below.
If this is your first visit to Chicago, the SkyDeck is a must-do. Buy your Chicago SkyDeck Tickets in advance to experience the Ledge, explore the exhibits, and watch a short video on the history of the building.
Address: 233 South Wacker Drive, Chicago
12 Garfield Park Conservatory
Built in the early 1900s, the Garfield Park Conservatory is an historic, publicly owned botanical garden, operated by the Chicago Park District. The gardens grow plants which are used in the numerous city parks and gardens. The glass and metal prairie-school structure was designed by noted landscape architect Jens Jensen. His revolutionary design has been referred to as "landscape art under glass".
Some of the highlights include the Children's Garden, the Demonstration Gardens, and the Monet Garden, based on Claude Monet's garden at Giverney, France.
Address: 300 North Central Park Avenue, Chicago
13 John Hancock Center
The John Hancock Center stands 1,125 ft high and is easy to recognize by its dark metallic looking exterior and cross-braced steel design which runs up the outside of the building. As well, two 345 ft high telecommunications aerials project up from the roof. Visitors can enjoy the views from the 94th floor observatory. The building, constructed in 1970, contains a variety of shops, offices and apartments.
Address: 875 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago
14 Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park is a 6 mile stretch of green space along the edge of Lake Michigan, and Chicago's biggest park. This popular park is home to the lovely Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the country. Also located here are the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and the Chicago History Museum. For those who simply want to enjoy the outdoor space there are playing fields, bike trails, jogging paths, and beaches. Visitors can see a number of significant statues and pieces of public art within the park grounds including Augustus Saint Gaudens' Standing Statue of Lincoln (1887).
15 The Rookery Building
The Rookery Building was designed by architects Daniel Burnham and John Root in 1888, but the interior lobby and patio were remodelled by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907. This 12 story building has a Roman Revival and Queen Anne style facade but it is the inside and courtyard that are the true gems. The Rookery, named for the large number of pigeons that frequented the building, is listed on the Register of National Historic Places.
Address: 209 South LaSalle Street, Chicago
Where to Stay in Chicago for Sightseeing
The best sightseeing, shopping, and dining and the most interesting architecture are found in Chicago's city center, and this is where most visitors will want to stay. The city center encompasses the famous Magnificent Mile and areas of the waterfront, which are particularly popular in summer. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations.
- Luxury Hotels: At the high end of the luxury hotels is the Langham, with a beautiful riverfront location, and close to the Magnificent Mile, Millennium Park, and Navy Pier. The recently renovated Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile is a more modestly priced top-end hotel with a great location in the city center. In this same category and close to everything is the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel. This hotel offers beautiful views over Lake Michigan and Millennium Park.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In a good location, within walking distance of many of the major sites and set in the heart of the theater district, is the Hampton Majestic Chicago Theatre District. The Kinzie Hotel is a popular contemporary boutique hotel, centrally located for sightseeing and shopping. In a great location, just a couple of blocks off the Magnificent Mile, is the ACME Hotel Company, which describes itself as "hip" but is also quirky and cozy at the same time.
- Budget Hotels: Budget options in the city center are few and far between. The Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown has a decent location in the city center, with small rooms for Hampton but good service. The best bargains are outside the city center and require some commuting. Two good-value options are the Majestic Hotel and Best Western Plus Hawthorne Terrace Hotel, both in the Lakeview East neighborhood, north of downtown.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Chicago
Chicago's history is a big part of what makes it so unique. Taking a tour is definitely recommended if you want to learn about the city's storied past, from the notorious gangsters to the famous buildings. Below are some of the most popular or unique tours on offer in the city.
- See the sights. For general sightseeing the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus or Trolley Tour is the easiest and most convenient way to see the highlights of the city and to get oriented. For first timers, this is a must. Get on and off at the sights that interest you, skip those that don't, and learn a little history from this narrated tour. If you are spending more than one day in the city, do this tour on day one to get the layout of the city and figure out where you might want to spend the rest of your time.
If you are visiting during the warmer months, consider taking a Segway Tour. These are small groups of just eight people and one guide. You will be given a short training session and then head off on a guided tour.
- Special interest tours. The Chicago Mob and Crime Tour is one of those unique tours that can only exist in certain cities, like Chicago. This tour takes you to sites associated with some of the city's most notorious gangsters of the 20th century, including Al Capone and John Dillinger. Anyone who reads crime novels will love this tour.
During the summer months, check out the Chicago Architecture River Cruise. You don't have to be an expert to appreciate the city's fine buildings, and this 75-minute cruise is a great way to see and learn about Chicago's architecture.